Honoré de Balzac was born in 1799 to a family that managed to earn a measure of respectability through hard work and industry. His father was obsessed with raising their social standing, even going so far as to change the familial surname to sound more imposing. Balzac himself must have shared similar sentiments: he added the noble particle ‘de’ without authorization. An extremely independent personality, Balzac failed to succeed in the business world, attempting to by turns to be either a publisher, printer, businessman, critic, or politician, all with disastrous results. He used these personal experiences of failure and disappointment to inform his writing. An incomparably acute observer, Balzac managed to capture the unfiltered and un-romanticized nature of both individual people and society as a whole in his works. Seen as one of the primary founders of literary realism, which strove to depict everyday life as it is, he is known for his complex and genuine characters, who are neither fully good nor fully bad, but rather recognizably human. Many of his books, like the Human Comedy, Le Colonel Chabert, Father Goriot, The Lily of the Valley, and Eugénie Grandet, had a strong influence on many of the writers who followed him, including Emile Zola, Henry James, Charles Dickens, and Jack Kerouac. After extensively researching Balzac, Rodin decided to use his unique and bold personality to inform his effigy.
The statue was first commissioned in 1885 by the Société des Gens de Lettres, which Balzac had founded. After his death, Balzac’s rising acclaim prompted then-leader of the Société to push for a artistic tribute to the author. Initially, four other artists were considered for the project but after Emile Zola’s passionate support of Rodin, the sculptor was unanimously chosen and agreed to complete the statue within eighteen months. In reality, it took him seven years to complete. He became deeply invested in Balzac’s work, rereading his works and traveling to his hometown in an effort to further understand his subject. Eventually, Rodin resolved to create a monument that conveyed the author’s character and personality rather than simply his physical appearance, a truly innovative concept. According to the artist, “modern sculpture should exaggerate the forms from the moral point of view”, not just transcribe reality.
After seven long years of work, Rodin finally presented a plaster version of his project to the Salon de Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. Reports prior to this reveal had anticipated a negative response from audiences. These proved to be correct as the response to the statue was immediate and harsh: critics lambasted the grotesque nature of the piece as well as its similarity to the work of impressionist sculpture Medardo Rosso. After seeing the final version of the sculpture, the Société des Gens de Lettres refused to accept it and revoked the commission. Despite this backlash, the work received praise from Rodin’s contemporaries in the artistic community, such as Claude Monet and Paul Cezanne who appreciated his groundbreaking approach. Rodin refused numerous offers for the plaster cast of the statue and instead chose to place it in his home in Meudon. More than twenty years after his death, Rodin’s tribute to Balzac was cast in bronze and placed the intersection of the Boulevard du Montparnasse and the Boulevard Raspail on July 2, 1939.
Arguably one of the most important and influential sculptures in modern art history, Rodin’s portrayal of Balzac went beyond a mere artistic depiction. It is in fact a physiological representation of the author, meant to embody and illustrate his quintessential self to the viewer. Today, replicas of the work exist in numerous museums around the world, including the Middelheim Open Air Sculpture Museum in Antwerp, The Norton Simon Museum of Art, the Musée Rodin in Meudon, the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia, the Hirshhorn Museum, the Hirschhorn Sculpture Garden in Washington D.C, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, and the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Here, they continue to inspire all those who see them.